The temporary academic relocations of conference season take us not only to strange and sometimes remote campuses but also suspend usual routines of behaviour. A friend and colleague said recently that there are distinct national types of conference etiquette. How would she characterize them? ‘Australian conferences are vicious and boozy, American conferences are status conscious and networking-obsessed and British conferences are polite and consensual.’ The insight in the observation triggered immediate flashbacks. In continental Europe it is different again, where conference participants don’t ask questions but rather ‘intervene’. It is hearsay but it is rumoured that on one occasion a prestigious French academic asked a question that lasted 45 minutes.
American conferences are conducted within an atmosphere of pragmatic professionalism, business cards are traded, dinner invitations jockeyed for and conversations between delegates sound like curriculum vitae being read aloud. There is also something very peculiar in the staged formality of US conference discussion that reveals their obsession with status. Even the closest of friends refer to each other with their full academic titles to emphasize to the audience rank and esteem: ‘I would like to respond to a point made by Professor Warshow [my long-time friend and former lover] . . . concerning one key aspect of this quite brilliant paper.’
Conferences are places of self-promotion. ‘Hold that book up higher’, says the keynote speaker to the poor soul chairing as her latest literary offering is hoisted skyward like a football trophy. It all seems to have become much more brazen in the colloquium marketplace. Like barrow boys flogging bunches of bananas, publications are advertised on the PowerPoint slides as if to set out the stall of ideas. ‘Get your journal article citations here, three for a pound!’ Sycophancy is the other tool at work here. It can be transparent but nonetheless effective. Even the most acerbic of critics finds it hard to resist being seduced by a compliment.
While there is plenty of this going on in Britain, conference etiquette in my colleague’s diagnosis is quite different. The choreography of thanks to the organizers, co-panellists and indeed all those who have assembled at some ridiculous hour is terribly polite. Audiences nod like the purple cows that decorated the back seat windows of Ford Cortinas in the 1970s. Questions are introduced with the prefix ‘Thanks, I really enjoyed your paper but . . .’ Aching reverence is the preferred mode of self-presentation. In a plenary session a sociologist chastised the delegates at the event for too much nodding: ‘Aren’t the nods of agreement all a bit too cosy? Shouldn’t more people be shaking their heads instead?’ As silent encouragement to a speaker the nod shows attentiveness and appreciation. I myself am a Pavlovian nodder; it is the conditional reflex inspired through attending too many conferences. Yet as Pierre Bourdieu might say, truth isn’t measured in nods of approval.
There is a sinister aspect poking up through this surface of gentility. As a colleague put it, it’s ‘a very British way of telling someone their whole project is worthless without telling them’. It does not quite name itself but is nonetheless conveyed. ‘Thanks very much for your paper . . .’, followed by a list of shortcomings that lead inexorably to the conclusion that it is ill-founded and actually not worth the effort or the paper it is written on. This is a very British, controlled viciousness that can be damning while at the same time very well mannered.
There are a few maverick exceptions that luxuriate in breaking this stifling politeness. These modes of barbed response – most often masculine in character – either take the form of bad-tempered intellectual tantrums (‘I just have to say that you are all fundamentally wrong’) or the reproachful sermons from those who see themselves as the Defenders of the Discipline and its founding Great Men. In the latter case, such intellectual knights play to the conference gallery which is either enchanted or merely entertained by such charismatic certainties and yet they often define their discipline in such tight and exclusive ways that membership of this club is limited to themselves.
In 2009 conference etiquette was rudely interrupted by Russian artist Alexander Brener who staged his forms of extreme curating at academic events at Goldsmiths. The rumour around the college was that during a cultural studies seminar on ‘The Knowledge Economy and the Future of Capitalism’, he dropped his trousers, defecated in a cup, placed it on the table where the speakers were sitting and said, quoting Agamben, ‘There – that’s ‘‘bare life!’’’ It was said that murmurs went around the room, ‘call the police’ but this was quickly ruled out – ‘you can’t call the police to a cultural studies seminar’. Then, re-establishing the decorum of conference etiquette, those assembled just carried on regardless. Actually, it turned out later that this stunt was less than a live event and in fact had been pre-prepared.
Soon after, at another event at which I was present, one of Brener’s associates piped up at the end of a long technical philosophical discussion between Andrew Benjamin and Scott Lash on Agamben’s The Time That Remains. ‘You are all quite wrong about what Agamben meant’, she said scolding the philosophers and theory students. ‘I know this’, she continued, ‘because he was my lover . . .’
Perhaps such pranks could only happen in the art school environment of Goldsmiths but even then the scatological shock value soon becomes cliché. The lesson here is that we should think more about presenting our ideas and research as forms of performance and this is not just a matter of being more theatrical.
Rather, it makes us think about how we convey our ideas and use our voices. I remember organizing a conference where an experienced and eminent academic gave a presentation where the large audience that had gathered could barely hear what she had to say. This was because she pointed the microphone towards the audience rather than holding it close to her mouth. One of the attendees from a London-based theatre group came up to speak to me after the session. She attended the event because her company was developing an idea for a production on the theme of the conference. After the session she asked gently: ‘Do academics get any voice training?’ It was a telling question because we don’t really think about our voices as our most fundamental medium of communication.
I know when I am nervous I have an unfortunate habit of putting my index finger on my top lip. It was only after seeing myself lecture on YouTube that I realized I did this unconsciously. The problem is when I do this my voice is reduced to a mumble and disappears like I am whispering a secret to myself. While watching myself on YouTube was a painful experience, I learned a lot about the things I needed to change about how I might communicate better. It’s worth trying, even though watching yourself present on screen is perhaps the most cringingly awkward thing you’ll ever do.
In my time as Dean of the Goldsmiths Graduate School I saw students experimenting with really imaginative ways of performing ideas.
The best example I can think of is Heidi Hasbrouck’s ethnography of female waitresses in American diners and restaurants. Heidi was presenting her research at the Goldsmiths Graduate Festival. As the audience filed in, they smelt coffee being made and set up on a table at the side of the lecture theatre. Heidi, dressed in her waitress uniform, greeted the conference delegates. ‘Can I get you a coffee? Cream? Sugar?’ The audience was mildly confused while accepting a gratefully received dose of harsh-tasting coffee.
As we settled to listen to Heidi give her paper – still in costume – we realized that she had been embodying her argument. Central to this kind of work is a gendered form of emotional labour. Part of what a waitress does is the performance of a gendered cultural script. This involves tending to the patrons’ needs but also making them feel attended to and cared for. Heidi inhabited her argument before she explicated it.
Giving a conference paper requires putting one’s ideas forward and by extension putting oneself in peril. Will I seem a fool? Will I be found out? It involves a kind of existential risk evident in the nervous way that speakers ask ‘How do you think it went?’ I keep trying to stop myself asking this but it is impossible. The sense of exposure breeds uncertainty that can keep you awake at night and haunt you for days afterwards. What did they mean by that question? What was behind the pained expression of the person in the third row? In the context of this private form of academic torture British conference etiquette – and even a bit of nodding – is merciful. The fact is people rarely tell the truth when asked for an assessment on how the paper went and secretly we really always know the answer anyway.